An annotated selection of resources for studying the errors of the Word-Faith Movement
By David Kowalski
I recently received an email inquiry from someone close to me, who was researching the errors of the Word-Faith movement and asked if I had written anything on the subject. The following was my response:
It’s odd, but though I spent years extensively studying the Word-Faith movement and have taught on the subject of faith quite a bit, I have written very little about it. I discuss the background for the movement a little in the second section (on New Thought) in the article I wrote about Bernard and Manasseh Jordan (there is also some pertinent material in the endnotes of that article). I have also written a short article, “Magic Then and Now,” which relates to the issues involved with the Word-Faith movement.
Though primary source study should be a strong part of one’s research on any movement, I strongly believe the best critique of the movement is D. R. McConnell’s A Different Gospel. Christianbook.com seems to have the best price on a new, hard copy of the book 1 at $9.99, though amazon.com has used copies starting at $3.61, and they offer a Kindle version for $7.69.
I have done a good bit of reading in the resources McConnell cites. Over the years I put together a large collection of Word-Faith as well as New Thought Mind Science books, and read them — including Ralph Waldo Trine’s In Tune With the Infinite which is now available in PDF format. Trine attended Emerson College with E. W. Kenyon. While Emerson College is now a secular school and has always been officially a school of oratory, at the time Kenyon and Trine attended Emerson it was largely dedicated to spreading Mind Science teachings. Trine went on to be a significant figure in New Thought and his proximity to Kenyon has often been considered significant in tracing the roots of Kenyon’s teachings.
In A Different Gospel, McConnell convincingly demonstrates the New Thought influence on Kenyon in various ways (including historical anecdotes about Kenyon’s comments on Mind Science) and then clearly shows how Kenneth Hagin brazenly plagiarized Kenyon. The Word-Faith movement itself has largely copied Hagin.
What Kenyon did to facilitate the introduction of New Thought ideas to Christians was to use slightly more biblical sounding terminology. What was “positive affirmation” to New Thought practitioners, became “positive confession” to Word-Faith adherents. The “subconscious Mind” became “the recreated, human spirit.”
I have read Kenyon’s books and he openly teaches that the “believer” has his spirit remade of divine substance — the very thing that makes God divine. The believer becomes just as much of a God/Man as Jesus was, and as such has divine abilities to manipulate spiritual powers at his own initiative and under his own control through his spoken words. The words themselves are said to have spiritual power. This “positive confession” is an occult technique, not biblical prayer. It is the “magic of believing” (as one New Thought author has put it), not faith in God.
McConnell also addresses Kenyon’s atonement heresy which is parroted by the Word-Faith movement. For them, the blood of Christ does not atone for sin. They believe Christ’s physical death on the cross merely put an end to the Old Covenant but did nothing to establish the New Covenant. This, they say, was accomplished after the cross when Jesus stopped being God for a little while and took on Satan’s nature, spending the next three days in the flames of hell. After this, Jesus was recreated and once again became holy and divine. All of this is sharply contradicted by Scripture.
Critics of McConnell sometimes disparage his book by pointing out that McConnell did not document other sources of influence on Kenyon’s life and spirituality such as the Higher Life movement (often problematic in itself due to the prominence of quietistic teaching in many [though not all] of its participants).
Other authors such as A. B. Simpson and A. J. Gordon no doubt influenced some of Kenyon’s thought but contributed nothing to the Mind Science aspects of his teaching. Had McConnell been writing a biography of Kenyon’s life, neglect to mention these other sources would have indeed been a serious oversight, but McConnell was only seeking to show the influence of Mind Science on Kenyon as a part of a book on the Word-Faith movement.
Given McConnell’s limited focus with regard to Kenyon’s life (demonstrating Mind Science influence on his teaching), Kenyon’s other, spiritual/theological influences were incidental to McConnell’s thesis and I believe the criticism is thus not valid.
Brian Onken wrote a good article on the atonement heresy of the Word-Faith movement for CRI back when Walter Martin was still the head of that ministry.
Robert Bowman has written some good articles on the movement and his book The Word-Faith Controversy: Understanding the Health and Wealth Gospel is worth reading. He unfortunately joins in the unfair criticism of McConnell but he does contribute an insight or two into the movement’s teachings that McConnell does not address.
I discuss Judson Cornwall’s Unfeigned Faith as well as some other, early critiques of the Word-Faith movement in this short post.
I talk about the supernatural gifting of saving faith in this article. Though I do not mention faith as it receives healing in that article, I believe it works much the same way. We cannot work up faith for any supernatural working of the Holy Spirit. As Sigfried Schatzmann says in A Pauline Theology of Charismata, gift-faith is an attendant gift which must be present to receive all other manifestations of the Holy Spirit. In other words, we cannot manufacture faith for healing; we must receive it from above. Healings are given by God’s sovereign grace-initiative and preceded by gift-faith that receives it.
While my wording might differ a little from R. A. Torrey’s on the subject, I think his short, out of print book Divine Healing is must reading for anyone interested in the subject.
The passage Torrey refers to most prominently is Romans 8:18-25:
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:18 – 25 ESV)
The main point is that we have new, inward life in the Spirit as the first-fruits of our inheritance which includes physical resurrection of our bodies when Christ returns (see also 1 Peter chapter one and see the word study linked to at this Google+ post. Though our spirits are renewed, our bodies are still part of the corrupted order resulting from the fall, and we groan as we wait for our physical inheritance. In the meantime, we do sometimes receive foretastes of that inheritance in gifts of healing sovereignly given by the Holy Spirit. Still, we all ultimately die unless Christ returns first.
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:17 ESV)
I see that on the internet there seems to be an abundance of people quoting Torrey out of context (often with ellipses indicating where they deleted text in the middle of the quote). I consider this most misleading. Those who misquote Torrey seem intent on making him out to be sympathetic to the approach to healing taken by the Word-faith teachers and a reading of his entire book shows that he was largely trying to refute that misunderstanding of healing as it was surfacing in the teaching of some of the healing evangelists of his day (even though Torrey did believe that God heals).
Donald Gee’s little (30 pages) classic Trophimus I left Sick is no longer in print but can be found reproduced online 2. Gee was one of the most prominent Pentecostal teachers of the 20th century but he took a very sane and scriptural approach to healing. In Trophimus I Left Sick, one of Gee’s points seems to be that though believers do pray for healing, in this age healing is primarily a sign gift that accompanies evangelism. We see even in the NT, cases such as that of Trophimus (2 Timothy 4:20) in which no healing occurred and this non-healing is treated as though there was no deficiency of any kind in people such as Trophimus or in those who prayed for them. Trophimus’ sickness was called real by the Holy Spirit (not a “lying symptom”) and his condition (as well as Timothy [1 Timothy 5:23] and Paul’s [he speaks of his “bodily illness” in Galatians 4:13]) is not treated as though it evidenced a lack of faith.
While foretastes of our inheritance may be provided for through the cross, the real-life application of that provision only occurs when the Holy Spirit actually heals someone through his grace-initiative poured out through the gift-faith that receives it. We pray for gifts of healings but our hope is not in a little healing, it is in the complete resurrection and glorification of our bodies which will only occur when Christ returns.
Charles Price’s old classic, The Real Faith (available free in PDF format) is a good book on this phenomenon of gift-faith as it relates specifically to healing.
I have a short post on Google+, in which I discuss some failings in the Word-Faith approach to healing in an introduction to an article I link to about an extremist group that has caused the death of some children by withholding life-sustaining medications. I consider the Word-Faith movement’s lowering of Christ, denial of the blood atonement, deification of believers, trust in occult techniques, and materialistic focus to be the core errors of the movement, however, with their errant teaching on healing being a just slightly less significant error.
I have written a couple of articles related to wealth. My article on Economic Justice may be broader for the most part than the subject about which you are looking into, but it has, I believe, some brief points that relate. “Needs Vs. Wants” is a much shorter post but more specifically related to your current interest.
Gordon Fee is considered a first rate scholar and an authority on biblical interpretation (see, for example his book How To Read the Bible for All It’s Worth . His short book The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels deals, as I recall, almost exclusively with the health and wealth issues as taught by the movement. 3 Ron Dunn’s book Faith Crisis is also well worth reading if you get the time.
There are, of course, a large number of articles about the Word-Faith movement on the internet, and some are better than others. The four below are quite brief but get to the heart of the issues fairly well:
- Word-Faith Movement
- Is the Word of Faith movement biblical?
- An examination of the Word-Faith movement
- Ten Reasons to Reject WORD-of-FAITH Teachings
To sum up, I would recommend anyone researching the Word-Faith movement to start with three resources: the section that speaks of New Thought from my article about the Jordans, D. R. McConnell’s A Different Gospel, and Brian Onken’s article on the atonement heresy. After reading these, they can explore the other resources mentioned above.
There are many other critiques of the Word-Faith movement available but these vary in their value to a researcher. Of course, primary source study is always a part of serious research but one will become acquainted with which books and recordings by Word-Faith teachers would best serve their research as they see what is referenced in the better critiques.
The following piece is something I have had ready for quite some time and meant to use it as part of a written series on faith. I think that even in its limited and abbreviated form, one may find something helpful in it:
Many misconceptions about faith exist in the church today, largely because of an abundance of bad teaching on the subject from Word-Faith and positive thinking advocates. The precise nature of faith is clearly taught in the Bible, though, and once it is understood, it is easy to see where those err who teach the subject falsely. First, let us get a working definition of faith.
The Greek noun translated “faith” is pistis (verb form pistueo). W. E. Vine described biblical faith as a conviction “based on hearing.” Bauer Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker’s lexicon comments upon how biblical faith is believing and trusting in God. When the word is used as an adjective in Scripture, it takes on the meaning of “faithfulness.” Thus,Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology sums up the usages as “Belief, trust, and loyalty to a person or thing.”
The first question we will ask about this faith is “what does it do?” The answer is that faith is not a kind of work, as is repeatedly stressed throughout the New Testament. In itself it does not do — it receives.
“Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” (Romans 4:4-5 NASB).
It is important to recognize that in itself, faith is not a source of grace or power that results in the things accomplished even though it it sometimes referred to (in kind of theological shorthand) as though it were the agent of things done (see Hebrews 11). Though we may speak of a water faucet as giving us water, we understand that the faucet is only a conduit through which water is sent from its source. Faith’s role is not to work for, earn, or produce anything. It simply receives grace.
“For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace…” (Romans 4:16 NASB).
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8 NASB).”Who are protected by the power of God through faith…” (1 Peter 1:5 NASB)
Biblical faith is always portrayed within itself in a passive role though it inevitably results in and active expression once grace is received. God graciously gives to us through faith. Faith is not a currency that obtains favor and it is not a spiritual, ray gun we can fire at circumstances to make them more pleasant.
Faith is not the river but the river bed. This is pictured for us in Scripture through the river of life. Rev. 21:1–2 reveals the source, which is the sovereign throne of God. Ezekiel 47:1–12 shows the earthly outlet to be the house of God, and Jesus specifies that to any believer John 7:37–39. We cannot create grace; we can only receive and express it.
The initiative for God’s grace and power rests with God alone. Faith responds to God. God is the only source of His own power. Faith is just the wire it flows through. Faith responds to God’s initiative and simply receives what He gives and then expresses precisely and only that. Jesus is our role model in this pattern:
“Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” (John 5:19 NASB)
“I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (John 5:30 NASB)”…I do nothing on My own initiative…” (John 8:28 NASB)
Faith is not a mental or emotional state that we produce in order to supernaturally cause whatever we want to happen. Faith can onlyrespond to God, and then receive and express what He sovereignly gives. We cannot use faith; we can only be used of God through faith. The wire does not produce the electricity and the riverbed produces no water. But when they are aligned with the source, mighty things can flow through them.
This does not mean that Christians do not work and labor in their service to God, but it does mean that we are utterly dependent upon God and His grace for the beneficial results of our labor.
It also means we cannot believe or speak things into being. Being created in God’s image does not give us God’s prerogatives! Faith is not a magic wand. It is the open, empty hand that receives and then gives to others what has come from the source, which is God’s throne.
“Our life is found in ‘looking unto Jesus’ (Heb. 12:2), not in looking unto our own faith.”– Charles Spurgeon
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